From Containment to State Building: NATO in the Balkans

A F-15E Strike Eagle takes off from Aviano Air Base, Italy during the Balkan War in 1999.
This picture is in the public domain

January 20, 2009
By Bodo Weber
NATO's post-1989 era

NATO has undergone fundamental changes since entering the post-1989 era, changes that are strongly linked to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Even though 9/11 has removed the Balkans region from the spotlight of international politics, NATO is still caught up in events from the previous decade. It is time for the Alliance to concertedly address its mixed legacy in the Balkans, so that it can better clarify its role in future crises.
The outbreak of the Balkan wars marked the beginning of a new era: Europe was confronted with new forms of ethnic and religious conflict and new forms of war and mass violence. NATO was forced to depart from the old doctrine of territorial defence and steer towards a global and interventionist approach to security. It was a painstaking adjustment and posed challenges that met with resistance from military leaders, the political establishment, and the public at large.

Effective intervention

NATO’s engagement in the Balkans began with the controversial and ineffectual missions oriented on containment - ground surveillance of the economic sanctions against Serbia-Montenegro, together with the aerial surveillance of the highly questionable arms embargo against Bosnia. The Kosovo War of 1999, NATO’s first large-scale intervention, proved equally controversial and flawed. Due to a lack of political will and an insufficient understanding of the region’s social dynamics, the Kosovo mission unintentionally became an instance of “aerial warfare diplomacy” that proved highly problematic not only morally, but politically and militarily as well. The war failed to stop the dynamics of ethnic cleansing and did profound long-term damage to NATO’s reputation and reflected poorly on the ability of Western governments to legitimise international interventions to prevent mass atrocities.
There are, indeed, very clear lessons to be drawn from the missions in the Balkans. If you decide to launch a military mission, you must be prepared to use all the necessary means - NATO crippled itself in ruling out the use of ground forces in Kosovo. Secondly, Western military as well as political institutions have to address their flawed political analysis of authoritarian regimes.  NATO requires a better understanding of modern ethnic and religious collective ideologies.

State building

NATO was also heavily involved in the aftermath of its military interventions in the Balkans, first and foremost through state building. These efforts, in which the international community joined in, and which, in recent years, have been mainly supported by the European Union, have yet to prove their lasting success. Indeed, recent years have been marked by discrete failures.

Two clear lessons emerge from NATO’s experience with state building in the Balkans. First is the fact that military missions play a large role in restoring public security. NATO forces in the Balkans showed reluctance to take over policing roles. Yet, in failed states or societies where there is either no effective civilian police or where it plays an active role in the dissolution of the state’s monopoly on the use of force, such an initial merger of the functions of military and civilian security forces is inevitable, even though it remains structurally problematic. The second aspect is the importance, for international organisations, to enhance the co-operation between civil and military efforts in state building. In post-war Bosnia, for example, the lack of co-ordination between civil and military attempts put substantial constraints on the international efforts to build a functional, democratic state. Establishing effective command lines between civilan and military agencies remains one of the main challenges.

The biggest success concerning the politics of state building in the Balkans for NATO seems to have been its role in the democratic transformation of the armies of the post-Yugoslav states. NATO’s politics of enlargement initiated the transformation of the region’s militaries from actors of ethnic violence towards modern, democratic armies. This is an ongoing and largely successful process. Recent years have even seen progress in the Serbian military.
Such efforts are doomed without the political will to oversee and enforce changes, a point underscored by the uneven reform of the Croatian military. As the Balkans country closest to gaining NATO membership, Croatia has undertaken rapid army reform. Given the authoritarian political culture of the country’s elites, there has been a lack of transparency in that process and an almost complete absence of public discussion on the reform process and on NATO membership. There is good reason to doubt that democratic control has been established over Croatia’s military. Yet, NATO is torn between its geostrategic interests and its goals for democratisation and, thus, has done little to question the process.

Dealing with Russia

NATO’s relationship with Russia played a crucial role in solving ethnic conflicts in the Balkans during the last two decades. Another important lesson comes out of this experience. Over the last two decades Russia has had little strategic interest in the Balkans, yet it used and stoked the myth of religious and ethnic brotherhood with Slavic and Orthodox groups in the region in order to promote its role as an important global player. Russia has undoubtedly served as an obstacle to the long-term stabilisation of the societies in the western Balkans. Given this context, NATO’s mission with respect to Russia should be clear: Integrate it where necessary, keep it out where possible.


Bodo Weber is a Berlin-based sociologist and independent political consultant on Balkan affairs.